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McPhersonSentinel - McPherson, KS
  • Mac woman’s history featured in Great Plains Study

  • There isn’t much left of Waldeck. Google puts it northeast of Canton, but only if you search for it. In fact, the only indication that a town used to be there is a well marker.
    But for Belén Olson, a lifelong Kansan, Waldeck was one of the first places she called home.
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  • There isn’t much left of Waldeck. Google puts it northeast of Canton, but only if you search for it. In fact, the only indication that a town used to be there is a well marker.
    But for Belén Olson, a lifelong Kansan, Waldeck was one of the first places she called home.
    Olson was born in 1924 during a family trip to Hacienda Pedricena, her grandfather’s hometown in Durango, Mexico. Her grandfather, Felipe Rivas, came to Waldeck in 1918 to work on the railroad with his wife and three sons. Olson’s father, Antonio, worked on the railroad as well.
    Olson went to the Waldeck Grade School, where she learned to speak, read and write English from Hilda Nachtigal and Agnetha Duerksen. She picked it up so well  Duerksen entered her in the 1930-1931 school year spelling bee, where she won first place. She eventually moved to McPherson to study at McPherson College before accepting a job as a secretary.
    During the past year, Olson has been working to preserve this and other stories about her family. Her story was recently featured in Heritage of the Great Plains, a biannual journal published by the Center for Great Plains Studies and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Emporia State University.
    Olson said doing her family history isn’t so much about the genealogy as it is about the stories. She said she’s complied stories from her husband’s Swedish ancestry as well as her relatives. She plans to write the history of her children, and she’s started writing her own.
    “I said it’s about time,” said Esther McGowen, Olson’s daughter who lives in Kansas City. “You’ve chronicled everybody else’s life.”
    Olson said she writes her family history to make sure her children can remember it.
    “Life is so short,” Olson said. “If I leave the world tomorrow, they wouldn't know some of the stories I have to tell.”
    Olson isn’t the only one who remembers Waldeck. Steve Schmidt, who owns the land where Olson’s old school used to stand, organized a reunion for the school’s former students. Olson didn’t hear about it until she read about it in the paper and asked Schmidt if he had a brochure about the event.
    Schmidt became interested in the story of how Olson came to Kansas. Olson said his interest gave her the motivation to record her history.
    “If it hadn’t been for Steve prying into my private life, I would never have become interested in writing my family history,” she said with a laugh.
    Page 2 of 3 - Olson had kept a lot of her family’s records and began looking into her own roots. Meanwhile, Schmidt spoke to some friends at Emporia State University about what he had learned about Olson.
    “He started talking about me, and they became interested,” Olson said. “They said, ‘We have to talk to that lady.’”
    McGowen said her mother's Mexican heritage was of particular interest.
    “You’d think that since there’s a large Hispanic population kind of everywhere in the United States now, you’d think that some of these stories would be recorded, but apparently not,” McGowen said.
    Schmidt’s friends decided they wanted to interview Olson in 2012 to learn more about her story. Olson had developed Bell’s palsy, a form of facial paralysis, in February of that year, but she went ahead with the interview anyway.
    Her story was published in the Summer 2013 issue of Heritage of the Great Plains.
    Olson’s heritage has affected her role in the community as well. She said during an influx of Hispanic people, she was often called to help translate for doctors, officers and other officials.
    At one point, Olson went to Kansas City to become a certified medical interpreter so she could help translate doctors’ instructions for women giving birth.
    “That way, she could learn medical terms,” McGowen said. “They’re pretty helpful in the delivery room.”
    Olson’s heritage has given her the opportunity to teach others about her culture as well. She has given talks to the community about Christmas traditions in Mexico and different customs and clothing.
    “I’ve lived here so long, people don’t know I wasn’t born here,” Olson said. “When they find out, it’s news to them, and it’s exciting.”
    Olson said being a good member of the community is important.
    “I’ve met all kinds of people, good and some not so good,” Olson said. “You have to love your neighbor, no matter who they are.”
    Olson and her husband used to travel a lot, but age is making it difficult. She enjoys knitting, crocheting, sewing and reading nonfiction books.
    “I’m grateful I can still do a lot of things that a lot of people my age can't do,” Olson said.
    She also enjoys old movies, oil painting and calligraphy.
    “They don't teach penmanship like they used to,” Olson said. “It’s a lost art, which is too bad.”
    Page 3 of 3 - Olson said recording her history is important because like calligraphy or Waldeck, it can be lost.
    “I am the last person of our family that remembers anything about our history, our heritage,” Olson said. “If I should die tomorrow, there would be no one to tell my children, ‘This is the way Grandpa Felipe came, this is how he did it and where he lived.’”
    There may not be much left of Waldeck, but Olson hopes to preserve her memories of her childhood home for her children.
    “We live in a world where we could all be gone tomorrow,” Olson said. “But if not, if we’re going to be here for a few more hundred years, well, I’d like for my information to be passed on.”
    Contact Josh Arnett by email at jarnett@mcphersonsentinel.com and follow him on Twitter @ArnettSentinel.
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